The strange absence of ‘ambiguate’

August 22, 2021

If I asked you to name or invent a word that means ‘make ambiguous’, what would it be – ambiguify? ambiguate? I’ve felt an occasional need for such a term, to say that a word or piece of syntax ambiguates the meaning in text or speech.

I mean, sure, I can say ‘makes the sense ambiguous’. But there’s no reason not to have a one-word verb. After all, we have its antonym, disambiguate: to make something unambiguous. More on that later.

Take this use of since: Since I’ve been injured, I haven’t gone running. Does it mean ‘because’ or ‘since the time that’? Is its meaning causal or temporal? Without further information, there’s no way to be sure. The choice of conjunction ambiguates the sense.

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Un-user-friendly hyphenation

September 13, 2019

In the phrase a user-friendly website, few would argue against the hyphen. It clarifies. You could get away with a user friendly website, because user friendly is a familiar term and there is little chance of ambiguity (though hyphen devotees may call you a monster anyway). But the hyphen is conventional.

Things get more complex when the phrasal adjective gets more complex. It’s a non-profit-making group, with two hyphens, not a non-profit making group or a non profit-making group or a non profit making group – though many writers are strangely suspicious of multiple hyphenation.

But one rule does not fit all compounds. When a prefix such as non- or un- is added to an item that may already be hyphenated, things get erratic, as I detail in a post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens. Take hyphens seriously, one stylebook editor wrote, and ‘you will surely go mad’.

A further complication: In some semantic niches, we have yet to settle on a default phrase, so there are variants, variously hyphenated, competing for popularity and status – though we can get a sense of emerging preferences from corpus data, as I show below.

What, for instance, is the opposite of a user-friendly website? I’m not interested here in synonyms like awkwarddifficult, or unintuitive – only in compound modifiers based on negating user-friendly.

Fill in the blank: It’s a/an _______ website.

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Google’s Ngram Viewer and wild treacle

November 21, 2012

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. If you subscribe to it, or follow me on Twitter, you may already’ve seen them, in which case please indulge or disregard.

The first is a report on the new features of a recently relaunched linguistic corpus tool: Google’s Ngram Viewer 2.0:

It has improved the datasets and publisher metadata and added many more books to the corpus, so the results are more accurate and comprehensive than before. The interface remains much the same – you can modify searches by timeframe, degree of detail, and corpus type, including several different languages – but it comes with a whole new bag of tricks.

A significant innovation is the ability to search by part of speech. Say you want to look for a word as a verb, but it also functions as a noun. Just append “_VERB” to your search term – the capital letters are essential – and the Ngram Viewer filters accordingly.

You can also now compare BrE and AmE in the same graph. Here’s one I did of color vs. colour on both side of the Atlantic (click to enlarge):

See colour’s conspicuous double-dip in early-19th-century U.S.? Read on for my interpretation of this shift.


My latest piece, Getting ‘treacle’ from wild animals, traces the strange origins of treacle, beginning with the Proto-Indo-European root *ghwer– “wild”, from which we get Latin ferus (→ fierce, feral) and ferox (→ ferocious).

*Ghwer– also gave rise to the Greek word thēr, meaning “beast” or “wild animal”, whence the diminutive thērion – a word Aristotle used to refer to vipers. We see the same root in Therapoda (“beast feet”), a category of dinosaurs . . . . From thērion came thēriakos (adj.) “of a wild animal”, which led to thēriakē “antidote for poisonous wild animals”.

Latin borrowed this as theriaca, which became *triacula in Vulgar Latin. From this we get Old French triacle “antidote”, subsequently imported into Middle English and later to become treacle. Treacle was used especially against venomous bites such as snakes’ – the remedy often included snake flesh – then gradually the word’s meaning shifted from antidote to general cure or prophylactic. Sir Thomas More mentions “a most strong treacle against those venomous heresies”. Eventually the medicinal connotations faded.

You can read the rest of this peculiar etymology at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and older posts are available here.

Edit: Something else I meant to mention. A couple of weeks ago Macmillan announced it would be phasing out its printed dictionaries. Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell writes about the decision here. “[E]xiting print is a moment of liberation,” he says, “because at last our dictionaries have found their ideal medium.”

Corpus fu, mismarriedly, and other neologisms

January 24, 2012

In a comment here last month I used the phrase corpus fu, which I subsequently defined as follows:

Corpus fu (n.) Skill or mastery in the use of text corpora.* By analogy with Google fu, from Kung fu.

Ian Preston said there was “all kinds of nerd-fu” out there, and he’s right. Given the productiveness of the X fu formula, I was surprised to find no older instances of corpus fu online. I expect the phrase has been used in unrecorded speech, but this post might give it a boost.

I like making up whimsical words and phrases. Often they appear as wordplay in conversation and are promptly forgotten, but a few I remember. Raiding my Twitter archives, I found bemused — not a new word but a new usage, which I’m voting Least Likely To Succeed:

On Google+ last week, Kory Stamper shared the curious adverb marriedly (“in the manner of a married couple; as if married”). I took to adding prefixes and ended up with mismarriedly (“in the manner of a mismarried couple; as if mismarried”, where mismarried = unsuitably married).

I was just playing around, but it turned out that mismarriedly had only a handful of results on Google, each of which was a computer-generated inflection. So Kory suggested (“Quick!”) that I use it in a sentence, and this was it:

The couple mismarriedly struggled on, doomed to a life of intimate unhappiness.

Had I given it more thought, I might’ve written something a shade subtler, like “…resigned to a life of intimate dissatisfaction”. But it’ll do. Mismarriedly is unusual for me in that it’s not a silly or frivolous coinage. It isn’t very useful, either — the world has done fine without it for long enough — but who knows, maybe someone will put it to practical use.

Another coinage I’m adopting is urbigator (urban + alligator?), meaning “any large earth-moving or digging vehicle”. This is one of several new words in Erin McKean’s recent article on neologisms in the Boston Globe. I was also struck by thelcome, which blends thank you and you’re welcome. Would it be handy to have a word like this in common parlance?

Erin explains why some new words are more likely to take off than others. She says Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society

gives five factors by which to judge the success of a new word: what he calls the FUDGE scale. FUDGE stands for “frequency of use” (more use means a higher chance of success), “unobtrusiveness” (is it too jokey?), “diversity of users and situations” (is it used by a lot of different people?), “generation of other forms and meanings” (can you verb it?), and “endurance of the concept.”

All of which suggests that corpus fu, mismarriedly and my bemused are not destined for world domination. But who knows.

What do you think of thelcome and company? Do you invent words, or are there little-known words whose circulation you’d like to increase? I’d love to hear about them.

Update: Via a comment from Ben Zimmer on Language Hat: two excellent articles that trace the shifting meaning of bemused: “We are not bemused”, by Jan Freeman, and “Perplexed by ‘Nonplussed’ and ‘Bemused'”, by Ben himself.


* By text corpora I mean structured linguistic data such as the sets created by Mark Davies (also under “Language links” in the blogroll).